Nutritional experts, the media and doctors are always telling us that we need to eat a "balanced diet". This message has been repeated so frequently that most of us know it off by heart: "Eat less fat, eat more fruit, vegetables and fibre". But what does this mean exactly, and how do we know if we are achieving the right balance?
Despite all of the advice most of us fall short of the recommended guidelines when it comes to consuming sufficient amounts of healthy carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables, fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
Many who follow a very low fat diet may be harming their long-term health as much as those who eat a high-fat diet. Many of us eat far more protein than our bodies actually require, and are not aware that excessive amounts of protein may be harmful. Some fats are vital to our health and are not very easy to find in a typical diet. Many of us fall short of consuming enough food with the vitamins, micronutrients and minerals that we require for optimal health.
A balanced diet involves eating the following types of food in the correct proportions: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Plus eating a varied diet and mixture of foods that contain all the required vitamins and minerals. It is important to consume sufficient fibre for our bowels to function normally and to keep our bowels healthy. Scientists have discovered components of food known as phytochemicals. These are not nutrients as such and have been described as "biochemically active non-nutrients". They are found in plants and are responsible for giving the plant its colour, flavour and odour. "Phyto" means plant.
The body's most basic and constant requirement, apart from water, is energy. In a balanced diet our main source of energy should be from carbohydrates. Nutritionists advise that about 47-50% of our energy (as a minimum) should come from carbohydrates. To ensure that you get your 50% or so calories from carbohydrates you need to ensure that at least every meal contains a good portion of (preferably unrefined) starchy carbohydrate food such as rice, potatoes, pasta or bread. At most meals you should also eat about two portions of fruit and/or vegetables in good sized portions.
A balanced diet involves eating up to 15% of the calories in our diet as protein. This the advice from the UK Department of Health. The WHO suggests 10-15%, a figure which is recognised by most nutrition professionals. According to the UK DoH a more accurate guide is to reckon 0.75G of protein for every kilogram of your body weight. This does work out at nearer to 10% for most individuals.
Most meals should include a low- or moderate-fat protein. This means choosing fish, poultry, game, pulses and extra-lean meats. The portions of these can be quite small.
If you choose pulses they also contain a good starch content and they will count towards your carbohydrate intake. High-fat proteins such as fatty meats, dairy products and hard cheese should be eaten in even smaller portions and less often.
Fat is present in a great many foods, and as all fat is a calorie-dense food, it is easy to consume too much without being aware that one is doing so. Choosing plenty of complex carbohydrate, fruit and vegetables and adding low-fat protein to this will make it easier to keep the fat content of your meals low. This means that you can add small amounts of the fats that you choose to your diet. For example: ideally, healthy plant oils most of the time, such as olive or corn oil, perhaps some vegetable fat spread, and a little butter now and again when it improves the taste of the dish. Try to remember that some carbohydrates, such as certain breads, contain more fat that you may realise.
A balanced diet involves eating a maximum of 33-35% of our calories as fat, according to the UK DoH. However many authorities advise going lower with fats. The USA and WHO recommend a maximum of 30% of our calories come from fats. It is recommended by the UK DoH that 30% of our fats consumed are saturated fats.
Drinks and snacks
A good tip is to use what you drink as an opportunity to obtain healthy nutrients and vitamins. For example: get Vitamin C from fruit juices (care with citrus fruits if you have acid reflux disease), calcium from low-fat milk or fortified soya milk, even phytochemicals from tea (care in acid reflux diet). Don't forget water, one of the best drinks of all, particularly if you are following a GERD diet. Regard snacks as an excuse for extra nutrients, rather than feeling guilty.
Sugars and alcohol
By now, the largest part of your daily calorific requirements will have been met. There is therefore little room left for sugars and alcohol. Consume these two in moderation, if at all. As a general guideline, aim to take a maximum of 10% of your total daily calorific requirements in the form of sugary, fatty or alcoholic extras. These treats add little in the way of extra nutrients and vitamins to your diet.
Variety in your diet
If you balance your meals in the above ways then this forms the basis for a healthy diet for life. To ensure that you take in sufficient levels of vitamins, nutrients, minerals and phytochemicals it is important to go for variety in your diet. Try to eat as wide a variety of foods as you can manage. This means different sources of carbohydrate, varying types of protein, lots of different vegetables, salads and fruits. This not only helps to make your diet more interesting, it also ensures that you get all the healthy micronutrients that your body requires.
This is because even foods of the same group are not all good sources of the same nutrients. For example, protein-rich cod is an excellent source of some B vitamins and selenium, but contains little calcium; whilst low-fat cheese is an excellent source of calcium.
The final tip is: By cutting out foods from your diet, you are not necessarily doing your body a favour. Balance and variety are the most important aspects of a healthy diet, and within this framework there can be room for all kinds of foods. Restiction is not always beneficial and healthy. Good nutrition is not about cutting out foods perceived to be "bad". Try not to remove nutritious foods from your diet unnecessarily, unless you have a particular medical condition (e.g. Coeliac disease or GERD), which necessitates such a restricted diet.